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Homeland Security chief directs FEMA to aid in sheltering unaccompanied migrant children

FILE - In this Thursday, May 2, 2019 file photo, Border Patrol agents hold a news conference prior to a media tour of a new U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary facility near the Donna International Bridge in Donna, Texas. President Joe Biden’s administration is refusing to allow lawyers who inspect facilities where immigrant children are detained to enter a Border Patrol tent in Texas where agents are holding hundreds of youths. The attorneys say they were allowed to speak to children at the facility in Donna on Thursday, March 11, 2021 but were denied the chance to see the areas where the youths were being held. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

(CNN) — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to aid and support efforts “to safely receive, shelter, and transfer unaccompanied children” crossing the country’s southern border in a Saturday statement.

The announcement comes on the tail of a week that saw the number of unaccompanied migrant children in US Border Patrol custody rise to unprecedented heights — more than 3,200 unaccompanied migrant children were in CBP custody, according to documents obtained by CNN and dated Monday.

Of those, around 2,600 were awaiting placement in shelters suitable for minors, but there were just more than 500 beds available to accommodate them.

“I am incredibly proud of the agents of the Border Patrol, who have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care,” Mayorkas wrote Saturday. “Yet, as I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child. We are working in partnership with (the Department of Health and Human Services) to address the needs of unaccompanied children, which is made only more difficult given the protocols and restrictions required to protect the public health and the health of the children themselves.”

On Friday, the Biden administration announced the termination of a Trump-era agreement that had allowed DHS and HHS to share information on potential sponsors for migrant children with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which a Biden administration official said had had a “chilling effect” on undocumented family members coming forward.

Earlier this month, CNN reported migrant children crossing the US-Mexico border alone are on average staying in Border Patrol custody for longer than the three-day limit, overwhelming capacity at border facilities and indicating a crisis taking shape, according to internal documents.

But, at a press briefing at the White House, Mayorkas declined to describe the situation at the border as a crisis, instead calling it “a challenge.”

With Saturday’s announcement, FEMA will work with HHS “to look at every available option to quickly expand physical capacity for appropriate lodging.”

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